In the past, organizational innovation came from the spark of an idea applied to a well-funded research and development panel. The organization hatched the idea, grew it, and presented it all on its own timeline. This is no longer the case. Growth, engagement, and even the creation of ideas themselves is now fueled by faster processes and the closer interactions between companies and their customers, partners, and professional associations.
Innovation often arises from this collaboration, and new practices can stem from members, fans, and loyalists whose ideas can be integrated into your business to help it grow and expand in new directions. Online communities facilitate and even make this collaboration possible, but only if the community is properly defined and utilized to provide new value to both the business and its customers.
An online community is not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are a number of ways to use them to enhance your business and add value for your customers. You can create different types of communities to serve the needs of your company and customers.
- Fan Community - Fan communities allow people to interact with a company and other fans of the brand. They can receive discounts, loyalty points, be a part of various programs, get information about the brand before anyone else, and make suggestions on improvements.
- Networking Community - Networking communities provides an area for like-minded professionals or people in the same industry to connect with others around the globe on their time outside of an association meeting.
- Learning Environment - A learning environment is a place where professionals gather to discuss continuing education credits, the accreditation process, or other areas involved in professional coursework and certification.
Online Communities Can Support Many Engagement Strategies
While online communities tend to traditionally be organized around social activities and professional networking, we're starting to see some innovative uses for these bridges between organizations and individuals.
User groups aim at connecting people who use a product (usually software or technology) with one another. They often share best practices, as well product development suggestions. In the case of a software as a service (SaaS) user group, an online community works extremely well because they're already online and most are technologically proficient and comfortable interacting in that format.
Customer and Employee Portals
Building relationships makes for more valuable and efficient collaboration. Geographically distant employees can network and improve relations with one another.
In the case of customer portals, an online community keeps them involved and in the know with your product or service, and can also be used as an extension of your customer service efforts, cutting down on phone calls and increasing efficiency.
Many customers have moved towards using social media in order to reach customer service. Often times it is a way to bypass long waits. However, companies don't enjoy the airing of potentially embarrassing gaffs on a site as visible as Facebook. Running your customer service through a private online community online community can give customers the quick attention they want without the organization being exposed to a larger audience, which could include competitors.
Product Advisory Groups
For companies looking to streamline and scale back on the costs of their research and development, an online community can be quite effective. Fans of your brand are the people you will ultimately be selling to anyway, so getting them involved early is important to your new offering's success.
This also cultivates loyalty and a sense of ownership among your customers. Not only do they enjoy the opportunity to give feedback and input but many like the exclusivity behind these types of groups. This gives them value among their tribe of social media followers and helps cultivate their own personal brand.
Partner Portals for Affiliates
Some affiliate partners need and want access to customers. Many are willing to pay for it. An online community helps organizations extend that access without risking the privacy of their customers. This type of group has a symbiotic relationship and one that can be controlled through permissions settings and segmentation.
Niche Market Groups
There are certain niche markets and industries in which people will pay for exclusive access to information and high-level networking opportunities. Many organizations have recognized this, and have begun monetizing their communities. Content, connections, and exclusive networking access are integral to the success of these communities.
Online Community Software Takeaway
There's more behind innovative online communities than just the groups involved or the way people are interacting. Innovation and the strengthening of company brands and product offerings by customers are now driving many of these communities. Over the past decade or so, there's been an increased amount of information sharing between businesses and the public, including an invitation for collaboration between businesses, customers, and professional associations. Not only are the uses of online communities evolving, so is the idea of who and what is driving the innovation. Customers and fans will continue to become more vested in the process and future offerings of the most successful organizations.